Reflections on Self-Regulation

By Tamar Jacobson

“For children, intense emotions are like a dark forest at night. Trees rustle in the wind, bats circle above, and all manner of insects crawl along the ground, but in the darkness they are impossible to see, let alone understand. The brain starts making associations, and the child becomes overwhelmed with dark imaginings. When we use discipline methods like time-out, we essentially usher our kids into the woods and just leave them there in the darkness. More, we actually tell them to sit silently and not move no matter what they experience so that they can “reflect” on their actions” –Jacobson, 2014 , Time’s up for ‘time-out.’ The Atlantic

It is the very idea of self-regulation or self-soothing, that is at the source of our aversion to children needing our attention. In other words, “Kids, get on with it! … do not disrupt our routine. We have much more important issues to deal with right now: Reading, math, assessments, administrators stopping by to see how well I run my classroom. It must not seem messy or chaotic. I must look like I have control of my classroom. So – self-regulate – self-soothe, and please, whatever you do, do not need me! I have much more important things to deal with here.” And yet, in any society that includes different and unique human beings, relationships are going to be fraught with challenges, chaos, and yes, a lot of messiness.

In a democratic or what some might like to term a “civilized society,” we long for a sense of order and responsibility, where everyone knows their place and space, and people consider others responsibly. If we are self-regulated and abide by the rules of conduct, there will be no mess, infraction, disruption, or intrusion into personal space. What we forget is that societies of all descriptions are made up of human beings with different feelings and needs.

“Self-regulation becomes about pleasing people, and stifling emotions”

So, where do I begin to think about self-regulation? This is the latest buzz word for young children to learn some kind of self-control when it comes to classroom management. The intent behind the expression is admirable. In order to succeed academically and emotionally, young children need to learn how to live in society by understanding its norms and rules. We also want them to become contributing members of our society – our adult world. Somehow, however, it becomes punitive as teachers and parents take on a behaviorist approach using punishments and rewards to teach children how to learn to self-regulate. Instead, self-regulation becomes about pleasing people, and stifling emotions: “I will do anything, just please don’t ignore me.” What about empathy and compassion, or making a stand for social justice? How do we learn these characteristics by pleasing people?

For example, let’s say a child doesn’t get what we are telling her the first time. Perhaps she needs it repeated a few times. I know I am like that when something makes me anxious or insecure. I might need the other person to repeat for me so that I feel safe in that context. Saying to me, “How many times must I tell you that?” will only make me feel like I am burdening the other person – that there must be something wrong with me because I need it repeated. I would rather remain silent and please the teacher, than ask her to repeat it one more time, and appear a nag, a whiner, or, worse still, a burden on her time.

So – as adults, teachers and parents, how do we determine when a child is emotionally capable of understanding the adult objectives of self-regulation? For example, I think of the five-year-old who had been moved from foster home to foster home – feeling he was to blame for each abandonment – arriving in a school classroom and finding it so very difficult to self-regulate – an emotional bundle of self-worthlessness. In the end, of course, not only was he expelled from the school, out of the teacher’s frustration that he would not conform to their strict rules, he was moved to yet another foster home. At which time in his life would a compassionate adult hold still long enough to give him enough attention that he craved for to break the cycle of abandonment? How does a young child express to us their fear of abandonment? Their longing for more of us? How do we gauge what is the right amount for each person? When will we understand that children will do anything to please us or get us to like them – for they need our affirmation for their emotional survival – and when that fails they will show us in all sorts of ways usually as evident as we care to admit – how deeply they hurt.

“I do not see them as a disruption to my plan.”

In all the books and articles that I have been reading lately with advice about classroom management, or discipline strategies, the term disruption is bandied about freely. Especially as something wrong, that has to be averted at all costs. The concept of “disruption,” is as fraught with negative connotation as could be. For, of course we do not want people “disrupting” our lives. But allow me to delve deeper into understanding what we mean by “disruption.” It means we have some sort of plan or world order that must take place without diversion. If we are led down a different path, what might happen? Danger? Loss of control? Often when I am giving a presentation about a certain topic, I find myself diverting to different ideas and associations along the way. I have an outline, a plan, and even a Power Point presentation to guide me. However, as I speak and others comment, interrupt, or share their ideas and emotions, I find I must go in different directions to accommodate and include them. I do not see them as a disruption to my plan. On the contrary, they enhance it, give it depth, and I learn new things about human emotion, the lives of others, and the human condition overall. I develop more and more compassion and acceptance of the diversity of humanity. It is enormously beneficial in the long run.

“We learn together, not only how to read or write, but how we communicate with one another, how we care about each other”

It is the same for teaching young children in a classroom. Of course, we have a plan, an agenda. But along the way, ideas and feelings of the children in this mini-society of human beings – the classroom – must disrupt our attention to something larger, more complex, and essential to a bigger picture of how people live together in community. We learn together, not only how to read or write, but how we communicate with one another, how we care about each other, and how we can all contribute to the whole community we are living in by stopping to listen to one another with empathy and compassion. At the end, we return to our original plan with newer, fresher ideas, feeling strengthened by our collective humanity. The word disruption should be banned from our understanding about discipline and learning how to live with one another in a compassionate and productive society. It is not a disruption. Rather it is an opportunity to widen our emotional understanding of one another – to learn something new about one another. We should seize the opportunity with excitement, even joy.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tamar Jacobson was born in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and traveled to Israel where she became a preschool teacher with the Israeli Ministry of Education. Jacobson completed a doctorate in early childhood education at the University at Buffalo (UB). As director of the University at Buffalo Child Care Center (UBCCC), she created a training site for early childhood students from area colleges, including UB. She was recipient of the 2013 National Association for Early Childhood Teacher Educators (NAECTE) Outstanding Early Childhood Teacher Educator Award, participated on the Consulting Editors Panel for NAEYC, and is a former fellow in the Child Trauma Academy. Tamar Jacobson presents at international, national, state, and regional levels. She is author of Don’t Get So Upset!” Help Young Children Manage Their Feelings By Understanding Your Own (Redleaf Press, 2008), editor of Perspectives on Gender in Early Childhood (Redleaf Press, 2010), and author of the forthcoming Everyone Needs Attention (Redleaf Press; available July 2018).
Learn more about Tamar here.

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